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I read Susan Elia MacNeal‘s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in two sittings (it could have been one if I’d started earlier the first evening), anticipating an enjoyable read. The book is set at the beginning of Winston Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister. Having visited the Cabinet War Rooms years ago, and the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park last May, I was excited to revisit the time period in fiction.

I really admire how the British dealt with the war, a topic that has been covered in many of my favorite books (Andrea Levy’s Small IslandThe 1940’s House book and television show, Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, Robert Harris’s Enigma, just off the top of my head). MacNeal has written a fun, fast-moving spy/mystery/thriller that takes readers into the wartime lives of some young Londoners. It’s the first in a planned series (there is even a preview of the 2nd book at the end of this one).

MacNeal’s heroine, Maggie Hope, is British, but was raised in America by her aunt, a lesbian college professor who left England to escape her judgmental mother. Maggie’s parents were in a car crash when she was an infant. After she’s graduated from college and been accepted into M.I.T.’s PhD program in math, Maggie learns her grandmother has died in London and left her a large Victorian home. According to the will, she herself has to go to London or the house can’t be sold.

We meet her about a year later. The house hasn’t sold, and she’s decided to stay and join the war effort. MacNeal quickly establishes that Maggie is smart, has had an unusual upbringing, is sketchy on her own family history, and prone to strong opinions about equality for women and gays. We also learn that one of Mr. Churchill’s secretaries has been murdered and Maggie is about to get her job through a friend who works at No. 10 Downing Street.

I read some online reviews critical of MacNeal’s plotting; some of the parts fit more (or less) neatly than some readers would like. I’m less inclined to criticize, because although the book may not be perfect, it did what a spy thriller should: kept me on edge, wanting to know what would happen next.  I imagine it’s hard to write historical fiction well, and to plot a thriller, so I am willing to cut MacNeal some slack.

Maggie is a unique and delightful character. She’s outspoken, brilliant, a loyal friend and sensible woman who seems perfectly suited to daring war work. Her friends are interesting characters as well, including a ballerina from working class Liverpool and a gay man who discusses the need to keep a low profile (one reviewer thought it unlikely a gay man could have worked for Churchill in wartime; Alan Turing certainly engaged in top secret war work and was only arrested years later when he mentioned his boyfriend while reporting a theft). I got a kick out of MacNeal’s portrayal of Churchill and his interactions with his staff.

The IRA presence in London plays an important part in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I hadn’t read much about IRA/Nazi collaborations. MacNeal draws chilling portraits of an English fascist and two IRA agents, including the atrocities perpetrated on the agents’ families by the British military that led them both to the Republican cause. It was interesting to consider how MI5 had to deal with both domestic espionage and terrorism.

In her afterword, MacNeal talks about her research, including corresponding with one of Churchill’s woman secretaries, and her visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I enjoyed the way she wove historical fact into her fictional world, and admired her lively and vivid characters. The book has a clever (I’ll concede occasionally far-fetched) plot and was an interesting and fun read. My interest in Maggie Hope is piqued enough that I’ve placed a hold on the Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, the 2nd book, due out later this fall.

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